In its first months, President George W. Bush's new foreign-policy team has
gotten the wrong rap--an inane one that deflects attention away from the serious
questions. Since November the press has been abuzz with the supposed insight that
Bush's appointees are "retreads" from previous Republican governments. Yet this
conceit has obscured the far more important issue of what Bush's new team intends
to do. What goals have they set? Are these goals prudent, affordable, and
achievable? What will the impact be upon America's role in the world?
Once you study the new administration, its instincts, and its priorities, a
paradox emerges. Bush's new foreign-policy team, for all its reassuring stability
and experience, may be a bunch of risk takers. A group of bright, talented men
and women whose background and orientation are deeply rooted in the past
traditions of American foreign policy could, in fact, propel the United States
into an uncharted world. A new administration deeply and sincerely committed to
preserving the alliances that have governed U.S. foreign policy for a
half-century could radically alter our relationships with our allies.
In short, if things don't work out right, the retreads could roll off the
The nationwide perceptions of the Bush team took hold quickly. Within a week
of election day, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that Bush was
busy setting up "a mime presidency stocked with Poppy's retreads." Not exactly,
countered her colleague Frank Rich two months later: Bush is turning out to be
"an equal-opportunity employer of retreads: forgotten Ford and Reagan retainers
are just as welcome as dad's."
For sure, virtually all of the top foreign-policy officials in the new
administration--Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Robert Zoellick,
Richard Armitage, and Paul Wolfowitz--served in past Republican administrations.
But how, really, are Bush's appointees different from those of previous
presidents in this respect? On foreign policy, incoming presidents generally turn
to veterans from previous administrations. After all, President Clinton's
incoming foreign-policy team included Warren Christopher (Carter and Johnson
administrations) as secretary of state, Anthony Lake (Carter and Nixon
administrations) as national-security adviser, and R. James Woolsey (everyone) as
CIA director. John F. Kennedy turned to the not-so-fresh face of Dean Rusk from
the Truman administration. Ronald Reagan, after dumping on Henry Kissinger during
two presidential campaigns, timidly brought in Alexander Haig, Kissinger's
sidekick, as his first secretary of state.
During the 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter's aide Hamilton Jordan made a famous
prediction in a Playboy magazine interview: "If, after the inauguration,
you find a Cy Vance as Secretary of State and a Zbigniew Brzezinski as head of
national security, then I would say we failed. And I'd quit. But ... that's not
going to happen. You're going to see new faces, new ideas. The government is
going to be run by people you have never heard of." When Carter was elected, of
course, Vance and Brzezinski got the top jobs (and Jordan didn't quit).
So the "retread" line misses the point. Did we really expect (or want) Bush to
pick secretaries of state and defense and a national-security adviser with no
previous experience in foreign policy?
At their confirmation hearings in January, the top two Bush appointees, Powell
and Rumsfeld, put their experience on display but emphasized the future.
Recalling his last stint at the Pentagon, from 1975 to 1977, Rumsfeld
volunteered: "We lived in a very different world then. In the intervening
quarter-century, the world has changed in ways that we could once only dream of."
And Powell disarmed his critics by making an eloquent pitch for continued
American involvement overseas. Showing a strain of idealism, he recognized
America's strong interest in human rights and democracy. He also repeatedly
demonstrated his innate caution. When asked at one point about normalizing
relations with North Korea, Powell said that America should approach doing so
"with clear-eyed realism about the nature of that regime."
Yet at these confirmation hearings, as with almost everything else involving
the new Bush administration's foreign policy, it was hard not to notice an
elephant in the room: missile defense--the most significant and far-reaching
proposal of the incoming administration.
Rumsfeld, who not long ago headed the commission that called attention to the
dangers of missile attacks against the United States, was particularly messianic
on this subject. Powell, too, offered his own one-liners: "No one thinking
soundly, logically, would construct a strategic framework with offense only. Not
the New York Giants, and not America."
What should we think about missile defense? Many on the political left tend to
look upon missile defense as inherently evil--and by treating it as such, they
fail to emphasize the right questions about it. Demonizing missile defense won't
work, because, in the abstract, it's hard to argue that the overall purpose is a
bad one. If you have the technology, what's wrong with having a system that will
shoot down missiles directed at the United States or at American troops overseas?
By arguing in shorthand, these critics fail to engage in debate about the costs
and diplomatic implications.
The supporters, including the new Bush team, similarly fail to engage. The
underlying logic of the supporters is quite simple: (1) Missile defense is
becoming increasingly feasible; (2) it would be valuable for American security;
and (3) so of course it's going to happen, like it or not. In effect, the message
of missile defense supporters to the opposition is an updated version of the
famous admonition that Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry once issued to white
voters as he was being re-elected after his drug conviction: "Get over it."
So the more consequential debate over missile defense could be fought within
the Bush administration's own ranks. If the new foreign-policy team pushes ahead
on missile defense, the administration would have to make difficult choices in
two critical areas where the Bush team has competing priorities and interests:
the defense budget and America's relations with its allies.
"Alliances are not just for crises," Bush said in his main foreign-policy
speech of the campaign. While running for the White House, he repeatedly pointed
to the successes of the last Bush administration in putting together the
multinational coalition against Iraq.
Within limits, he has a point. The Gulf War coalition that Bush's father put
together was a deft piece of diplomacy. And the Clinton administration was
sometimes inattentive or downright shabby in its dealings with American military
allies--as when the president didn't bother to stop in Japan while making a
10-day sojourn to China in 1998.
The problem is that America's main military allies--Japan, South Korea, and,
above all, our NATO partners in Europe--have changed since the last Bush
administration left office in 1992. The Europeans, in particular, have over the
past year grown increasingly nervous about a new Bush administration and have, in
fact, been far more complimentary to the outgoing Clinton administration than to
Bush. Last May Clinton was awarded the prestigious Charlemagne Prize for his
contributions to Europe--an award won by a couple of other Americans, George C.
Marshall and Henry Kissinger, but not, surprisingly enough, by George Bush the
Missile defense is at the very core of the Europeans' uneasiness about the
United States. They fear that a system designed to protect the United States from
missiles will destroy the very underpinnings of the NATO alliance, the idea of a
shared defense against a common threat, by creating the old dream of a fortress
America. In the European view, missile defense could lead to a dramatic break in
the American tradition of internationalism that guided American policy from
Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt through the end of the twentieth
Nor are the Europeans alone in their fears. The Japanese worry that if the
United States pursues missile defense, China will respond by dramatically
increasing its missile arsenal in a way that could jeopardize Japan's security.
India--not an ally, but a nation with which the Bush administration says it wants
an upgraded relationship--worries not only about an increase in Chinese missiles:
India also fears a new entente between China and Russia should the Bush
administration carry out missile defense in a way that drives Moscow and Beijing
Bush's advisers on foreign policy insist that all of these anxieties are
overblown. In their view, once the administration goes ahead with a missile
defense system and explains it, America's friends will all go along in the end.
They regularly cite a precedent that they believe shows the willingness of our
allies to give way. During the 1980s, the Reagan administration decided to deploy
America's Pershing II missiles in Europe to counteract Soviet SS-20 missiles.
Powell told the story at his confirmation hearing.
"There was a heck of a hullabaloo. Our European allies at that time were going
nuts," the new secretary of state recalled. "It took quite a selling story... .
But lo and behold, we were able to do it by convincing our friends that this made
It is a revealing anecdote. Powell's facts are right--but the context is that
of the Cold War, when Europe still saw the United States as protection against a
Soviet attack. Will the Europeans be as accommodating today as they were at the
time of the Pershings? We don't know yet. On the one hand, Bush's incoming
appointees, like Rumsfeld, go out of their way to assure us that they recognize
how much the world has changed since the end of the Cold War. On the other hand,
on important policy issues, their instincts, experience, and expectations
sometimes seem to be based heavily on how countries behaved during the Cold War.
Then there is the problem of paying for missile defense. It's no accident that
one of Bush's first moves during the transition was to call his foreign-policy
team down to Texas to meet privately with congressional leaders from the
armed-services committees and the appropriations subcommittees on defense. From
the Bush team's own perspective, getting the Defense budget right is of paramount
There are at least three competing interests for new money in the Bush defense
budget, each with its own constituencies. One is missile defense. The second is
other new and advanced hardware: in the jargon of the military,
"generation-skipping" weapons systems to keep America technologically on top. The
third is military readiness--that is, money for American troops, including the
salaries to recruit and keep them in the military, the training and equipment
that will enable them to fight well, and the bases and facilities to house them.
These constituencies for new money are now tugging against one another. At
Rumsfeld's confirmation hearing, Senator John McCain told him: "I was just down
at Marine Corps Air Station [in] Yuma. They're still living in World War II
barracks. And we're purchasing equipment that the military neither wants nor
During his campaign, Bush consistently supported missile defense, but he
pressed the issue of military readiness even more often. "Our military is low on
parts, pay, and morale," he thundered in his acceptance speech to the Republican
National Convention last July. "If called on by the commander in chief today, two
entire divisions of the Army would have to report, 'Not ready for duty, sir.'"
Now he and his foreign-policy team will have to make some decisions about what
they can and can't afford.
And whatever they do, they'll of course run into resistance. Virtually every
item in the defense budget has its own front men on Capitol Hill. The members of
the Senate aren't even embarrassed to joke about it.
The last time Rumsfeld was defense secretary, the "unrequested add-ons"--that
is, the items that Congress approved even though nobody in the Pentagon had asked
for them--amounted to some $200 million to $300 million a year. Fifteen years
later, McCain told Rumsfeld, "It's now up to around $6 billion or $7 billion
minimum." By way of example, McCain cited the continued production of C-130
transport planes, "which 10 years ago the United States Air Force said they
didn't need... . We're going to have a C-130 in every schoolyard in America
before this is over."
Democratic Senator Max Cleland took McCain's words as an insult to his home
state. "Since the C-130s are built in Georgia," he told Rumsfeld, "I'd like to
say that I'm for schoolyards being able to be moved anywhere in the world at a
moment's notice." This was a funny line, if you weren't a taxpayer.
This is the political climate in which the new Bush team will have to make its
decisions on defense. Estimates vary wildly, but a missile defense system will
cost from $60 billion to $100 billion or more. If the administration wants to
proceed, particularly given Bush's overall budget restraint, it will have to say
no to a lot of other defense items.
What Kind of Global Policeman?
Besides missile defense, the other huge question mark hanging over Bush's
foreign-policy appointees is their oft-stated reluctance to commit American
troops to peacekeeping and other military operations abroad. Caution about the
use of force featured even more prominently in Bush's campaign statements on
foreign policy than either readiness or missile defense.
Bush was, of course, embracing the "Powell doctrine," which got its name from
Powell's insistence, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, upon
strict conditions limiting American military interventions. What is now called
the Powell doctrine is, in fact, an updated version of the "Weinberger
doctrine." As Ronald Reagan's secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger proposed
that American troops shouldn't be sent overseas unless vital U.S. interests were
at stake, the objectives were clearly defined and limited, and overwhelming force
was amassed to achieve the objectives.
"We must always be mindful of the uniqueness of America's armed forces,"
Powell himself explained at his confirmation hearing. "We possess the only
military in the world that can go anywhere, anytime, support ourselves over the
long haul, and do it all in an overwhelming and decisive manner if need be. Tying
down such forces is often imprudent. We need to consider these points whenever we
feel the need to use our armed forces for peace operations that promise long or
It's not clear yet how--or, indeed, whether--the Bush team's stated belief in
such ideas will, in practice, change American foreign policy in future crises
such as Bosnia or Kosovo. But the suggestion certainly is that the U.S. military
should hunker down for the task of winning Big Wars and let other countries
employ their militaries to take care of messy little conflicts elsewhere.
The ideas behind the Powell-Weinberger doctrines have an honorable genesis in
the American military's unhappy experience in Vietnam (where Powell served). But
they also raise big questions about the role of the United States in the world
today. One problem is that there don't seem to be a lot of Big Wars looming--so
what are we spending all this money on defense for, anyway? Another is that the
doctrine seems to leave policy makers with a choice between a Big War and no use
of military force at all.
"I think there's been an evolution of the Powell doctrine," reflected
President Clinton's national-security adviser Sandy Berger. "What Colin said, and
I agree with him, is that when we use power, we ought to use enough power to win,
we ought to use overwhelming power. I believe we did that in Haiti and in Kosovo
and Bosnia. But there is a kind of implicit corollary to the Powell doctrine,
which is all-out war or nothing. And I think ... that there are some times when
intervention in the national interest in more limited circumstances, using
overwhelming power for those circumstances, can advance our interests."
Not surprisingly, the new Bush team's views about sending American troops
abroad, like its views on missile defense, could spell trouble for America's
relations with its allies. After years of faltering, the Europeans are now in the
process of forming their own military force, a rapid-reaction force of 60,000
troops that will be run by the European Union. If the Bush administration
suddenly pulls American troops out from peacekeeping operations in the Balkans or
is reluctant to join Europeans in some similar effort in the future, the impact
will be to weaken NATO and to accelerate the development of European institutions
that don't include the United States.
And if so, then the Bush administration could prove counterproductive. While
taking office committed to strengthening America's relations with its allies, the
new administration could in the end weaken the alliances that have guided U.S.
foreign policy for six decades. While veterans of the past Bush administration
pride themselves, legitimately, on their ability to lead an array of nations
against Iraq, they could now take American foreign policy in a direction that
would make it ever less likely that the United States will be able to do so in
the future. What would happen if the United States tried to put together a Gulf
War coalition once again today? How many nations, besides Britain, would join?
Will the policies of the Bush team make it more or less likely that the United
States will go it alone in the world?
Perhaps Bush's foreign-policy team will overcome these obstacles. Perhaps it
will carry out its diplomacy so skillfully that other nations will be mollified.
There are indeed some veterans of the Clinton administration, for example, who
believe that not only U.S. allies but even Russia will eventually go along with
an American missile defense system, and that the objections raised so far
represent merely the prelude to negotiations. Throughout the past year, Russia
has objected strongly to any efforts to revise the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty
in a way that would accommodate missile defense. Yet former Deputy Secretary of
State Strobe Talbott, who was in charge of the Clinton administration's relations
with Russia, told a conference in January that "the reason we ran into the big
Nyet from the [Vladimir] Putin administration is very simple: President Putin
decided Russia would do a deal with the President who would deploy [the missile
defense system]." In other words, Talbott was saying, Russia has been holding off
in order to negotiate with Clinton's successor.
To see the full contours of the new vision, you must combine the two separate
strands of missile defense and the Powell doctrine. Put together, they seem to
offer a new relationship between America and other countries, one in which the
United States is increasingly eager to protect its own territory and troops and
increasingly reluctant to join in multilateral efforts to keep the peace. Much as
the new team denies it, the proposed new American role does seem like a change
from the internationalism of the past half-century to a more unilateral approach.
One of the main questions of the next four years will be how the Bush
administration puts into practice this different vision of American foreign
policy. It is, above all, an endeavor full of risks. Indeed, that may be the
greatest paradox of the new Bush foreign policy: that a group of people so
steeped in caution seem so willing to take such big chances in their effort to
redefine American foreign policy and security.
The Bush appointees' message is that the rest of the world will simply have to
live with these changes. But that message seems aimed in part at themselves. They
are the ones who are going to have the greatest problems coping with their own
vision. They will have to work out a defense budget that pays for missile
defense; a foreign policy that forsakes the use of troops outside of major wars;
and alliances that somehow adapt to their changing vision of America.
The issue isn't whether they are retreads, but where they are steering the
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